David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected], 2/1/02
Audacious actions by British marijuana activists have sparked a drama of principled nonviolent civil disobedience on the continent. After the founder of Stockport's "Dutch Experience" cannabis cafe, Colin Davies, was jailed last November, Chris Davies and Marco Cappato, members of the European Parliament from Britain and Italy, themselves visited the Manchester suburb, turning themselves in at the police station with small quantities of marijuana and getting arrested on the spot.
This week, Marco Pannella, founder of Europe's Transnational Radical Party (of which Cappato is a member), himself delivered marijuana to the Stockport police -- this time not getting arrested. The white-haired Pannella explained that, "As Socrates in Athens, we are today publicly violating an unfair law... Prohibition creates crimes, and against this situation we want to create a new order founded on freedom, rights and duties."
The Radicals are no mere adventurers having fun tweaking the system. Cappato and Davies, for example, could potentially get up to two years in prison. Last fall, four other members of the Radical Party were jailed in Laos for protesting the disappearance of four young Laotian activists.
Here in America -- which can be thought of as the drug war's political epicenter -- most of the effective drug war civil disobedience has taken place on different levels. On the medical front, patients and friends of patients have set up "buyers clubs" to serve the pressing needs of the sick and infirm in need of medical marijuana from a safe and affordable source. And on the public health front, "harm reduction" activists in the communities hardest hit by drug abuse, or most at risk of drug-related harm, have defied laws and attitudes and taken to the streets to exchange syringes, purity-test pills, do whatever is needed to save their fellow human beings from HIV or overdose, hepatitis or any of the harms or neglects common among drug users and other marginalized groups.
One of the early public health rebels was Joey Tranchina (a member of DRCNet's Board of Directors), who took to the streets of San Mateo County, California, to distribute sterile syringes and collect used ones under the auspices of his AIDS Prevention Action Network. San Mateo DA and Joey's high school debate partner, James Fox, tried to prosecute him, but the community saw the wisdom and dire necessity of APAN's work, and Fox couldn't get a conviction.
Needle exchangers around the country have braved the law with varying degrees of success; some have won official sanction and support, while others, like the Chai Project's Diana McCague in New Jersey, faced too much resistance from the government, and suffered significant personal cost. That risk also comes with this territory, as Henry David Thoreau discussed in his classic "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience" -- those who go through with it must live with the possible consequences. Indeed, a number of our friends in the medical marijuana movement are living with that possibility in prison today, and some have paid with their lives.
Joey doesn't hold a grudge against his old friend; as he told me, he couldn't have bought that kind of publicity. When I visited an APAN site a few years ago, it was clear who had won the morality debate; and today APAN's work is officially legal too. I happened to meet District Attorney Fox at a conference several years ago in Washington; at the same event, two attendees, one a rather hardcore drug warrior, told me they had been convinced of our case on the needle exchange issue. McCague, too, may yet win after the fact; New Jersey's new governor is talking about making needle exchange legal under certain circumstances, and the dramatic educational publicity McCague's court fights garnered doubtless helped to set the stage for this.
Still, public opinion in any given state or country tends to define the limits of effective civil disobedience. Americans might approve of the medical marijuana clubs and the needle exchange programs, even in advance of the law's sanction; and they may largely tolerate or be indifferent to marijuana smoke-ins or public use at marijuana rallies or rock concerts. But no one on this side of the ocean has yet set up a quality-tested heroin operation for addicts, and for understandable reasons. Successful civil disobedience must be well designed for its venue, calculated carefully to gain approval for one's cause or at least respect.
Yet different tactics can be used in different places and times. Overseas, when the government of the Netherlands vacillated on its promise to begin a heroin maintenance trial program, the Reverend Hans Visser of Rotterdam threatened to take matters into his own hands and distribute clean heroin to addicts from the basement of his church. The government promptly announced it would proceed with the heroin trials, and Visser dropped his informal heroin maintenance plan.
In an ideal world, laws could always change first and behavior later. In this real world of AIDS and overdoses, of medical needs and an incarceration state of frightening proportions, the cost of waiting can sometimes be too great to bear. DRCNet salutes the courage of the Radicals and radicals everywhere, who with careful thought and deliberation go beyond the call of duty to put their freedom on the line for the freedom and rights of others.
See our article on the Stockport civil disobediences below